Jesus Christ

Growing in Christ - Meditation


"He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures." Luke 24:45

Apologetics has been partially defined as "that branch of theology devoted to the defense of a religious faith and addressed primarily to criticism originating from outside the religious faith, esp. such defense of the Christian faith." (Webster's Third New International Dictionary)[1].


1Peter 3: 14-15

But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them or be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; ... (ESV).


This verse and its use of the concepts of "defense" and "reason" appear to authorize us to engage in rational debate. But can we do so without making reason the judge of faith, or in other words, making reason a false idol? There is a limited good thing as detractors attack the faith-at least we have their attention. It is an opportunity to speak, to engage in dialogue, perhaps even to befriend as well as defend. This is easier said than done, of course, when the detractor is maniacally brilliant, aggressive and unrestrained in his blasphemy.


Such a person would be Richard Dawkins. In The God Delusion[2] he unleashes such a vitriolic attack on everything pertaining to religion in general and the Christian faith in particular that it is enough to churn the stomach of the most mature and even-tempered believer. This a scientist dressed up as a used car salesman, desperately trying to flog a car with a leaking fuel tank. This is a phony doctor offering a placebo which is in fact poison. This is ... well, you get the idea. Some of us have to resort to insults.


But if it is poison that Dawkins offers, then Alister and Joanna Collicutt McGrath provide the antidote. In The Dawkins Delusion[3], in calm and reasonable discussion, always erring on the side of fairness and generosity to Dawkins, they dissect and refute the faulty reasoning at play. This is routine work for Alister McGrath, who has previously responded to Dawkins in book form[4].


One core issue is the question of the limits of science. Some of us might have assumed that there are indeed fields of learning separate from science. Not so, say those who advocate scientism, or "a thesis that the methods of the natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation, including philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences..."[5] Dawkins would be in this category. Other scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould argue for entirely separate domains for science and religion, or "non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA)." The McGraths opt for a third option, or "partially overlapping magesteria (POMA)."[6] (Welcome to the jargon of contemporary apologetics.)  The McGraths point out that many scientists believe in God, and have written extensively on the relationship between science and religious belief.[7]


Alister McGrath has studied molecular biophysics as well as theology. Joanna Collicutt McGrath has a background in the psychology of religion. These authors are at their best describing the lack of scholarly rigor displayed by Dawkins in so many of his assertions. For example, how does an evolutionary scientist account for the origins of religion? How has religion survived the processes of natural selection? There must be something "good"-or helpful for survival about it. The McGraths ask:


How can Dawkins speak of religion as something "accidental" when his understanding of the evolutionary process precludes any theoretical framework that allows him to suggest that some outcomes are intentional and others accidental? It is inconsistent with a Darwinian view of the world.[8]


In other words, how can religion, which is all about purpose and design, arise out of a process-natural selection-which has no purpose or design, yet purports to be a complete explanation for the existence of all species of life, including ourselves? If evolution allows for accidents, perhaps there are many accidents within the theory. The debate is further clouded when it is not clear whether we are talking about religion as a sociological, biological or psychological phenomenon. The McGraths go on to say: "the main criticism of this accidental byproduct theory is the lack of serious evidence offered on its behalf. Where's the science?"[9] When theologian-scientists ask an atheist-scientist "where's the science?" we know the debate has reached high levels of exasperation as well as erudition.  


There are a few juicy tidbits in The God Delusion that deserve some discussion, though they may have been out of place in the McGraths' critique. For example, Dawkins is not above doing a little reading of scientific speculation, or science fiction. He quotes Fred Hoyle and Carl Sagan when discussing the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Dawkins states: "whether we ever get to know about them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.[10] Is this an ultra-rationalistic scientist speaking, or one that still has a childish imagination?


Dawkins is in fact careful to identify himself as a scientist rather than a philosopher.[11] This is admirable honesty, but what exactly is he engaging in when he writes books like The God Delusion and presumes to criticize the likes of Thomas Aquinas, among others? Dawkins states: "I mean it as a compliment when I say you could almost define a philosopher as someone who won't take common sense for an answer."[12] If it is a compliment, it is of the most patronizing kind. Philosophers everywhere who take pride in the history and progression of their academic discipline should be indignant at Dawkins' casual use and abuse of the philosophical enterprise.


There is a peculiar anecdote where Dawkins relates a conversation with scientist Jim Watson regarding the purpose of life, and it was apparently agreed that having a good lunch settled the question.[13] Ancient philosophers who discussed Hedonism and Epicureanism did the topic a little more justice, and the quest for philosophical truth has continued through the ages.


There is, furthermore, a conspicuous absence by Dawkins of any discussion of humanist existentialism, a seemingly appropriate topic. He and Jean-Paul Sartre-who once stated through one of his fictional characters: "Everything which exists is born for no reason, carries on existing through weakness, and dies by accident"[14]-probably would have been great friends. Sartre at least tried to comprehend some of the staggering implications of a godless universe. Politics, morality, art-none of these topics are convincingly handled by Dawkins, who appears to assume that an appreciation of the beauties of science solves all problems. He states that the atheist view is "life-affirming and life-enhancing"[15] without really explaining why or how such values exist in a world of the survival of the fittest.


Dawkins makes one amazing concession. He apparently believes that the Bible has literary and cultural value: "we can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage." [16] Treasured heritage? We can surely afford to be generous to this brilliant but unfinished writer, this naive but dangerous man, this peculiar and contradictory human being. He deserves our prayers. He has no instructions to love us, but we are obliged to remember Matthew 5:44: "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven."


In faith and fellowship,

Patrick McKitrick

Outreach Canada - more...

[1] Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Chicago: Merriam- Webster Inc.).

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 2006).

[3] Alister and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2007).

[4] Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Malden MA: Blackwell, 2005).  See also the comprehensive and recent A Fine-Tuned Universe (Westminster John Knox Press,2009). Reviewed in CRUX Vol. 46, No.2 Summer 2010.

[5] Webster's

[6] The Dawkins Delusion, pp. 40-41.

[7] See Owen Gingerich, God's Universe (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006); Paul Davies, Goldilocks Enigma (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Francis Collins, The Language of God. (New York: Free Press) 2006.

[8] The Dawkins Delusion, p.56.

[9] The Dawkins Delusion, p.56.

[10] The God Delusion, p.72.

[11] The God Delusion, p.82.

[12] The God Delusion, p.83.

[13] The God Delusion, p.100.

[14] La Nausee (Nausea) trans. Lloyd Alexander, (New York: New Directions, 2007).

[15] The God Delusion, p.361.

[16] The God Delusion, p.344.